Opening Wednesday November 16, from 6 to 8 pm
1970’s: 9 women and abstraction Dr. Barbara Stehle
The exhibition samples the work of 9 women artists involved in abstraction during one of the most essential decade for women in the arts: the 1970’s. The women featured are heterogeneous in age and practices, but they all were actors on the NYC art scene. The youngest was born in 1950, the oldest in 1928. Some of them were friends and/or neighbors. Most of them knew of each other. If you ask them today, they’ll give you the name of this “other woman artist” who they think is worth seeing. Yet, their works are very different. They illustrate the diversity of abstraction and its practices. Their examples give us an insight into the artistic scene during these dynamic years. It also gives us the opportunity to glimpse at their generation’s contribution to carve a place for women in the arts.
As I am researching the social context of the time, a friend shows me a newspaper’s photograph from the summer of 1970. The picture shows a stylish thirty year old woman with large sunglasses and two young girls demonstrating in the street holding picket signs that read: “Employers typecast women into low paying jobs!” “Equal pay for equal work.” This is the 70’s. This is unfortunately still so relevant.
The 9 women represented here refused typecasting. They made the choice of a life in the arts where there were no women types. Certainly, visibility was much harder to get for female artists, as it was for all minorities. The percentage of women shown at museums was so ridiculously low that it sparked a series of protests and guerilla actions. For the 9 women in the show, the point was never to make a distinction between the genders. The point was to design their lives and create a place for their work. They felt entitled to their ambition and to push as far as they could. The arts offered more freedom than traditional fields. Authorship is more than accepted: it is demanded. It posits the creation of one’s original identity. Their originality was as open to creation as to their male counterparts. In many ways, they had more to author. Society at large had yet to conceive of images for the artist as a woman. This is what the decade did: it affirmed and exposed the plurality of women’s artistic practices.
New York City in the 70’s was the essential platform of exchange and change in the arts. The art world was coming out of the reign of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Minimalism and Conceptual Art had emerged and pushed the definition of art further away from traditional means of production and consumption. The creative crowds were gathered in Lower Manhattan: The Village, The Lower East Side, Soho, TriBeCa. In a very restricted perimeter, several generations of artists and art movements were cohabiting. The women in the show joined their ranks.
Samia Halaby, Hermine Ford and Lizbeth Marano found lofts in Tribeca. The affordable East side was attractive to most: Lula Blocton, June Leaf, Kazuko Miyamoto, Merrill Wagner. Regina Bogat and Lynn Umlauf found their way in the legendary building 222 Bowery where Rothko was their neighbor. On their blocks, sometimes in their buildings, they met like-minded people, feminist/political activists and an older generation of artists who gave them a hand. They found love. They found friendship. They found a home. And they went to work.
Transformations of space
Kazuko Miyamoto lived at 113 Hester Street in the same building as the conceptual artists Adrien Piper and Sol LeWitt. She supported herself by becoming Sol’s assistant and they ended up collecting each other’s work. In 1973, Miyamoto joined AIR (Artist in Residence Gallery) an artistically directed and maintained women’s gallery. Nancy Spero and Howardina Pindell were amongst the founding members. At AIR, Miyamoto showed and adopted curating as a tool for minority and feminist activism. In 1978, she organized “Women artists from Japan.” She befriended Cuban born artist Ana Mendieta and together they organized the seminal show “Dialectics of Isolation: An Exhibition of Third World Women Artists in the United States”.
Kazuko Miyamoto’s installations from this period have an ephemeral and delicate expression. The artist used nails and industrial cotton strings stretched on and off the walls. The process is intensely precise and time consuming. The work re-envisions the feminine craft of weaving for the minimalist esthetic. They make space where the body is welcome. The pieces structure and composition often evoke sound travel: an optical echoing and dispersion, an environmental resonance.
By the end of the decade Miyamoto became pregnant; her own physical transformation generated a formal change in her creations. Her sculptural works acquired a primordial quality. Miyamoto started using woods and twisted brown rolls of paper to construct organic symbolical forms: nests, nets and ladders. Her string pieces had dialogued with architecture without raising tension. Her new work intensified the site. It wildly invaded all the surfaces of the gallery. The large floor based star in the show came out of that period. It spreads itself onto the floor, calling out your attention.
Manifestations of the grid
Regina Bogat is the eldest of the group. She was in art school after the war when the avant-garde spirit of early European modernism was an important influence. She remembers: “Neo-Plasticism was in the mix, led by Mondrian. He had his studio in Manhattan but passed away before I left College. At Brooklyn College, I heard a lot about him because the art department there was influenced by Bauhaus principles and its head, Harry Holtzman, was the executor of Mondrian’s estate. Perhaps I was unconsciously impacted by Mondrian.(1)”
During those early years, Bogat became friends with Ad Reinhard, Rothko and Elaine De Kooning. By the 70’s, Regina Bogat had formed ties with Eva Hesse, Trisha Brown and social activist Letty Cottin Pogrebin. By then, she was using industrial colored cords for her abstractions. She created tight tactile grid compositions on neutral backgrounds. Bogat denied Mondrian’s strict rule of primary color. Her rectilinear crossings follow post-impressionist color complementarity. The cords are woven tight and flat against the picture plane. The resulting works appear as a form of post-minimal Neo-plasticism: a flat grid net of rainbow cords.
Bogat folded paper to outline creases and mark the line crossing with little +. She multiplied experiments merging three dimensional tactile work and modernist tradition. She eventually let the cords loose. The works are joyous and eccentric with bright canvases and colorful threads like a hippy mane cascading and moving freely off the canvas. They broke the grid only in appearance. Their free spirited volume covers up the strong grid structure Bogat has in place underneath it all. Regina Bogat’s formalist instinct never bent.
Of the fabric of color
Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Merrill Wagner arrived in the late 50’s to NYC. At the Art Student League, she had such opposite teachers as George Grosz and Edwin Dickinson. Despite her training as a figurative painter, she went into abstraction. In the 70’s, she started experimenting with the nature of materials and color. Tape first entered her work as a tool, but soon became its material. She used it on architectural walls and glass. She would also create small portable pieces on plexiglass or paper.
Their formal quality resembles at times the fabric of papyrus. The regular bands of neutral shade look like old scribing surfaces when the composition is of a rectangular format. When the format is square, the work recalls the architectural quality of fences and palisades in particular.
While multiplying the ways of sequencing colors and form, Wagner instrumentalized the physical properties of tape (masking tape, gaffer tape) to integrate chance into her process. In doing so, she intentionally disrupted a seemingly minimalist order. Wagner came to develop a technique of imprinting. She would apply sanguine or other pigments to the layer of tape bands in square or rectangular formation. She would then sandwich it with a layer of tape fixed on a same sized plexiglass before separating them. This imprint process would result in the creation of two co-dependent works which did not look alike. The original matrix had lost some of its color in a random manner. The imprint and the matrix resulted in very different textured work with matching edges. The two resulting compositions next to each other look like semi-identical twins. They are quite oddly not identical. It is captivating.
Some works use ready-made colored tape, applied in tight band formation like a rampart braving light on the transparent plexi-square. The light comes through anyway: their colors are bright and clear. These small works have an incredible scale and their abstract shapes evoke large outdoors palisades. Their size does not limit their spatial dimension. They match the spirit of Merrill Wagner’s ephemeral explorations of color sequences exposed to weathering on fences, brick walls or stones in outdoors setting.
Earthworks as a tool for pictorial exploration
During her formative years, Lizbeth Marano created earthworks with a definitive pictorial quality. In her work, the land is the receptacle of her line drawing, the site of her abstraction. Marano reflected on Jan Dibbets Perspective correction, 1967-1969 in which the conceptual artist focuses on the perception of simple geometric shapes. Ellipsis and trapezes photographed from an oblique perspective show perfect circles and squares. Dibbets series raises questions of perception and representation, of the nature of the art object, reality and our perception of it.
After Dibbets, Marano created a project to push further the study of perspectival distortion. She chose a site where the terrain would interfere with her geometrical and spatial construction. Using strings, she designed 2 perfect squares, with an equivalent space between them, creating Three Squares on a Hill. The sloppy hill naturally affected the perception of the geometry. In Marano’s photographs the squares appear like trapezoids traveling on the surface of the lawn, like a Russian constructivist composition.
On another occasion, Marano poured a bag of lime as she walked through a wintery landscape along the banks of a river, until the bag emptied. The action resulted in the drawing of a soft edged irregular line in the landscape. The pigment rested on the earth, its powdery texture lifted by the wind, until the water rose and carried the line away. The lime which had traced the artist’s walk, was now traveling down the river, the flow breaking its linearity and dispersing the pigments in the water. The formal quality of the photograph, its visible grain, translate beautifully the powdery nature of the earthwork.
Principles of reality
Perception and reality are also at the center of Samia Halaby’s cylindrical studies from the 1970’s. In 1948, the Palestinian born Halaby and her family were forced to flee their home as a result of the first Arab-Israeli war. She was 12 year old and already loved to draw. By 1972, she had become the first woman on the full time faculty at Yale School of Art. She moved to NYC in 1976, finding a community of like minded lefty artists and political activists for the Palestinian cause.
Samia Halaby’s is an abstract painter. Yet, she has kept up a figurative drawing practice. Her figurative work is infused with her sentiments as a Palestinian refugee. This practice is a window into her emotional and political identity, but she has not let it define her artistic path. Her quest as an artist resides in the field of abstraction. She has written extensively about her commitment to “Reflecting reality in abstract picturing (2)”.
Halaby was trained classically in the art of drawing and painting from the model. She is an admirer of Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and Italian Primitive painters. Her large abstract drawings of the 70’s stem out of the use of three-dimensional geometric still lives she would paint “to compare the theory of perspective with the reality of seeing (3)”. Her concrete approach led her to understand how color influences the making of volumes and the illusion of depth. Leaving behind a specific object, the artist investigated fully the language of abstraction. She started to fill the pictorial space with gradations of color and light. Halaby developed a very personal interpretation of post-constructivist aesthetic. She achieves a poetics of limitless space, visually exploring the idea of a mathematical infinite. In her words, the paintings became in essence a “cylindrical surface without measure (4)”.
The works demonstrate the mastery of drawing techniques Halaby achieved very early on. The artist uses traditional cross hatching and shading techniques to compose her abstract illusions of a third dimension. Single Neon 1976 tight, high density surface is created by drawing one line after another, right next to each other. A discerning colorist, she modulates with peach color the edges of the neon glow without compromising the black and white contrasts. Halaby’s practice is informed by general principles deducted from the observation of life. Her abstraction opens up the realm of reality.
Lynn Umlauf is both a painter and a sculptor. Her father was a sculptor. All her siblings are artists and her husband was the late abstract expressionist Michael Goldberg. She has been a resident of the Bowery for 40 years, living in Tuscany part of the year. Her wall pieces carry within themselves her rich artistic background. The work is made of etching paper painted and drawn on, cut and fixed on a shaped canvas. The materials have a certain stiffness. The paper is heavy and dense, the canvas rough. Handling the fragments to combine them demands physical strength.
The pieces attach to the wall without a frame, just with nails. They never lay completely flat. They are thick skins in dialogue with the wall. Their shaped contour delineates a pictorial and physical territory. Our experience of them is dynamic. Our eyes travel their varied surface as if we were exploring an unknown land. The pieces take over the wall space is unusual and has little to do with a framed work. They are shapely, colorful, flat objects. Their color positions and contours orient them in space. Their balance is just as essential as balance is for her sculptures. Some appear totemic, some are light like a flying kite. The materiality of the works often stays close to their textile roots, but some appear very leathery and remind us of American Indian tanneries.
Umlauf uses raw canvas as light/space between colored areas of varied weights. We read it as negative forms involved in relationships of tension with the color panels. The colors run deeply into the paper. The acrylic and pastel or Arabic gum and pastel, have been rubbed to the point of scrubbing down the surface to a matte velvety texture. Two or three colors planes are usually paired on a piece. Harmonies and rivalries ensue. The values fluctuate within one hue. Sometimes a line moves through the planes and penetrates them. There is an elegant classicism to the works matte palette. Unnamable hues close in their tonalities to the frescoes of the Christian tradition.
Cultures of color
Lula Blocton moved from the Midwest to a loft near Cooper Union in 1972. Looking for a community of creative women, she joined a Women’s Caucus. Shortly after it opened she associated herself with Soho 20, a feminist gallery where she attended talks and events. Blocton was also included throughout the 70’s in several shows featuring Black Women visual perspectives. She taught art in colleges and showed her abstract paintings.
Blocton was especially fascinated by color interactions. Post-impressionist theory and the writings of Josef Albers informed her skills as a colorist. Her close observation of color in textile weaving gave her a real understanding of overlay and colored edges. A series of her drawings recall the wool motifs of Scottish clan design. Blocton was not trying to mimic the Scottish motives. But her drawings end up conveying the same soft geometry of repetitive nature. They announce by several decades Blocton’s interest in studying cultural patterns of abstraction. She would come to explore her own ancestral identity with a close look at African motifs.
Blocton’s 1970’s paintings cast agitation away. Yet, the artist recalls being affected by the illuminated city fabric she could observe through window. So it is such that often, light comes from the back of her pictorial structure. Its presence erodes edges and gives color a transient quality. Verticals and horizontals intersect and create colorful quadrangular areas. Within these areas, colors evolve perceptibly. Her grays have greens, her red oranges, her blues pinks, her white blues. Light creates these changes and manifests itself as a movement through the colors.
Like Lynn Umlauf, Hermine Ford was born in a family of creative forces. Early on she realized she never wanted to engage in the construction of representational space. But she is and was then already, fascinated by nature. Her fascination could not be translated literally. So she turned her experience of the shore and dunes in Provincetown into a kind of “abstract narrative. I had developed fields of marks that were derived from the grass growing on the dunes. Those small marks could be varied forever. The next panel would be an acidity copper green, which was the color painted on the window trim of the gray, unpainted dune shack we use to stay in. The dune shack itself was this “natural”, weathered gray, but the window frames were painted in what I always considered to be very artificial, oxidized copper green color (5)”.
In this work, Ford thinks of the landscape and she also thinks of recording her mark making process. Three out of 4 of the panels have a very precise repetitive trace pattern. The first one transfers the pencil marks used for dune drawing. The second records in a washed black the movement of the arm, from the elbow down, systematically going back and forth like a windshield. In the third one, the painter’s hand disappears to let color be solid light. The fourth panel is covered with directional independent brushstrokes saturating the space, they could be blow ups of the grass markings.
Each of the panels focuses on one of the site signifiers: Iconic local colors of the architecture and the dunes, marking of the natural forms. The compartmentalized close ups eliminate the vision of the whole but intensify the power of evocation. Ford inscribes the memorable elements of the site. The ones she is most emotionally attached to. Each panel is a cue for a mental reconstitution. The sequence corresponds to a conceptual landscape and functions as a personal memento of Provincetown. Ford’s piece is a portal onto the past, a sensate world of moving grass.
June Leaf is the only woman in the exhibition known for her figuration work. The painter is an opportunity to speak about the relationship between imagination, abstraction and reality. Most of the works we have seen have a clear relationship with reality. They are born out of observation, memory and formal relationships with real space rather than imagination. June Leaf’s work welcomes imagination and psychic space in her representation. Her art embraces the disintegration of the real to the point of reaching abstraction. Her explosive figuration can have the quality of a Turner landscape. The colors take over the form, the paint’s energy is more readable than the figure represented. Abstract elements are first visible, narration after.
Her Thinkscape is a brilliant cerebral landscape made of fragmented parts, procedures of shifting scales and painterly exclamations. It takes a bit of time to reconstitute Leaf’s narration. Her composition exists in a far more surreal space than the conceptual landscape. It is further remote from reality. Leaf is tackling the invisible, the spectacle of the psychic interior. A place where the rules are disconnected from laws regulating reality. A formidable strength and abstraction lays in this deregulation.
(1)The artist in an interview with David Rhodes “I was free to do as I pleased”: Regina Bogat on her life as an artist. In Artcritical, March 11th 2016.
(2) Samia A Halaby “Reflecting reality in abstract picturing”, Leonardo , Vol. 16, Issue 1987, pp. 241-246.
(3)Samia Halaby; Maymanah Farhat, Samia Halaby 5 decades of painting and innovation, Booth-Clibborn Editions, London, 2014, p.32.
(5)Stephanie Buhmann, New York Studio Conversations - Seventeen women talk about art, The green box, 2016, Hermine Ford p.79.